Vostochny Cosmodrome

When the Soviet government constructed the Baikonur Cosmodrome as the centre of its insurgent space program in the late 1950s in the centre of Kazakhstan, international jurisdiction was the furthest issue from their minds. The Kazakh SSR, as it was known at the time, was after all an integral part of the Soviet Union. Upon the break-up of the union at the end of 1991, the possession of the world’s largest spaceport became much more of an issue. Russia’s federal space agency, Roscosmos, inherited control of the space program, and have leased Baikonur from Kazakhstan for the yearly sum of US$115 million ever since, functionally turning Baikonur into a Russian exclave surrounded by Kazakhstan (Google Maps even include the boundary on their default map layer). Last year’s renewal of the lease extends Russia’s control of Baikonur until 2050, but that still leaves the Russian space program’s main base in another country.

Russia’s desire for a domestic spaceport for its major space projects has manifested itself this year with the commencement in January on construction of a new cosmodrome in the Russian Far East. Located in Amur Oblast near the Chinese border and the town of Uglegorsk (a residential area left over from a deactivated Soviet-era missile base), the Vostochny Cosmodrome (‘Eastern Cosmodrome’) will be constructed over the next half-decade at a cost of US$13.5 billion, sending unmanned craft into space by 2015-16, manned flights by 2018, and lunar visits by 2025. Vostochny will be the base from which flights of the new Rus-M rocket, the successor to the Soyuz capsule, will be launched. Below, a video from Roscosmos presenting the plan for the site.

Slick PR videos like the one above are a marked change from the secrecy of the Soviet era, as Russia intends to tout its new spaceport quite prominently, emphasising the civilian, non-military aspect of the project (unlike Baikonur, there will be no military installations at Vostochny). Russia plans to have 40% of its space activity operating out of Vostochny by 2020, with activity at Baikonur dropping to just 11% from 65% (the remainder of activity comes from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the far northwest of the country near Arkhangelsk, but Plesetsk is not considered to be an ideal location for geostationary launches because of its northern latitude). The shifting of the Russian space program’s main space operations to Vostochny leaves a gap at Baikonur that the space agency intends to fill with more commercial projects, as both Roscosmos andthe Kazakh government seek to lure commercial activity to Baikonur to generate revenue. With the growing market for private and commercial space projects, a less-busy Baikonur is well-positioned to take advantage of catering to space tourists and private spaceflight companies, something Roscosmos have always being willing to do at the right price. The Russian-Kazakhstani arrangement would transition from a military agreement to a commercial one.

Placing the new cosmodrome in the Amur region also caters to Russian regional development policy. Most of Amur Oblast is undeveloped, unpopulated forest. The development of the cosmodrome will see a large influx of people and capital into the region.Vladimir Putin has already announced the construction of a 30 000-to-35 000-resident city near Uglegorsk to service workers at Vostochny, creating an economic boon for the region.Uglegorsk has been a closed town since Soviet times due to its military origins (even the name, meaning ‘coal mountain’, was a misnomer designed to mislead outsiders about the settlement’s function; there are no coal deposits in the region) but this status would be removed with the arrival of the cosmodrome. Interestingly, the original abandoned missile site 60 km south of Uglegorsk at Svobodny was designated as a cosmodrome between 1996 and 2007 with the intention of replacing Baikonur, but the original military infrastructure proved unprofitable to maintain and the site was mothballed; only five lauches were ever made from Svobodny.

Further Reading

Clark, S. (2010). Russia plans to start cosmodrome work in 2010. Spaceflight Now, http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n1008/25cosmodrome/. Accessed 16 April 2011.

Messier, D. (2010). Putin: New Spaceport Will Make Russia Independent, More Competitive in Space. Parabolic Arc, 31 August 2010. Available at http://www.parabolicarc.com/2010/08/31/putin-spaceport/. Accessed 16 April 2011.

Mu X. (2011). Russia to stay in Kazakh cosmodrome for economic reasons. Xinhuanet, 1 February 2011. Available at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2011-02/01/c_13715378.htm. Accessed 16 April 2011.

RIA Novosti (2010). Kazakhstan Finally Ratifies Baikonur Rental Deal With Russia. SpaceDaily, 12 April 2010. Available at http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Kazakhstan_Finally_Ratifies_Baikonur_Rental_Deal_With_Russia_999.html. Accessed 16 April 2011.

SciTechStory (2010). New Russian spaceport: Vostochny Cosmodrome. 20 July 2010. Available at http://scitechstory.com/2010/07/20/new-russian-spaceport-vostochny-cosmodrome/. Accessed 16 April 2011.

Zak, A. (2011). Vostochny (formerly) Svobodny. RussianSpaceWeb, 1 April 2011. Available at http://www.russianspaceweb.com/svobodny.html. Accessed 16 April 2011.

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